Agricultural Land Reserve changes could impact B.C. cities

The edge defines the centre

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      The proposed changes to British Columbia’s Agricultural Land Reserve will have an impact on farmland across British Columbia, but little has been said about the potential impact on the province’s towns and cities. The ALR has acted as a check on sprawl in many regions, particularly in the Lower Mainland; the Vancouver region has become known for town centres that balance density and livability. By creating a future for farmland against the onslaught of rapidly spreading suburbs and by halting unbounded sprawl, the stage was set for a city that had to treat development more thoughtfully. Though the proposed changes to the ALR are most dramatic in rural regions of the province, the introduction of new performance standards and reporting requirements for the Agricultural Land Commission could signal an acceleration of exclusion approvals, even in Zone One, and an increase in costly sprawl.

      Bounded by ocean, rugged mountains that stretch for hundreds of kilometres, and an international border, the Vancouver region has never had much space to work with. By the 1970s, suburban sprawl was rapidly chewing through the region’s farmland. Realizing that something had to be done to protect farmland, the government placed 1,500 square kilometres of this limited land base into the new Agricultural Land Reserve, greatly constraining how Vancouver could spread. The ALR was a sea of green surrounding existing islands of settlement, and forced Vancouver to look inward and find new and increasingly creative solutions as to how to grow and even how to understand itself as an urban place, a centre increasingly defined by its edge.

      The Agricultural Land Reserve has been extremely effective at protecting our region’s farmland; land lost to development fell by nearly 90 percent, and secure in their tenure, farmers developed an intensive agricultural landscape that currently produces 4.5 percent of Canada’s farm income on 0.2 percent of the country’s farmland. The edges of this productive land held in our growing city; we built up as opposed to out. Defined by the clear and maintained rural edge, the development and consolidation of this city’s livable centres was striking, and helped define our signature style of development, Vancouverism.

      Vancouverism is a system that creates dense urban form that is justified through a rational of urban livability. Beyond signature towers, this rationale for density relies on active and intensified urban areas that have a mix of uses, are amenity rich, and are connected with a robust transit system. This density was not just expressed in localized built form, but was planned and produced at a regional level. Following on the heels of the ALR, the Livable Region Strategic Plan presented a future for this region that is only now becoming complete; the plan’s series of “metro” town centres, linked by rapid transit, connected Vancouver’s core to the developing cores of Coquitlam and Surrey. The region’s rich farmland in effect saved the region from sprawl.

      The regional plan reduced the pressures for a citywide freeway system, and early projects such as the SeaBus to North Vancouver staved off massive bridge and tunnel construction by formalizing and celebrating a rapid transit connection. SkyTrain, part urban rail and part interurban transit, provided a fast link between growing centres. Experimental neighbourhoods such as Granville Island and False Creek South became a vanguard of livable density. In the same years, plans were presented to make a citylike core around a yet to be built “metro” town centre in Burnaby. Today in Richmond, transit-oriented towers and apartments redeveloped on former single family lots are connected to the relatively new Canada Line, and overlook the farmland that an otherwise unconstrained and non-dense development would have overtaken.

      As the Agricultural Land Reserve enters its fifth decade, two starkly different futures for our region are emerging. The allowance for exclusions from the land reserve has decreased the original agricultural land base by over 10 percent in the region, but development pressures are now sharply accelerating. The Agricultural Land Commission currently has roughly 900 exclusion requests on its plate, and speculation is driving up the cost of farmland across the region. The proposed changes to the ALR in our region might promise the status quo, but that simply isn’t good enough; the only outcome of a weakened ALR is sprawl, from ocean to mountain, a tangled mass of pavement and traffic. In the developing areas of the province now surrounded by Zone Two ALR, sprawl is inevitable.

      Metro Vancouver was able to balance and consolidate the two excellencies of “town” and “country”. A strengthened Agricultural Land Reserve that continues to shape our city region far out into the Fraser Valley has the potential to focus development on core areas such as the existing historic downtowns of Chilliwack and Mission, as it did for the inner region. Such hubs could be easily connected by rapid transit to Metro proper and to each other. For this optimistic future to come to pass, well designed communities and agricultural protection must not be independent. To forget the symbiotic relationship of the edge and centre is to risk our livable region.

      Brendan Hurley is an urban designer at Via Architecture.

      Lenore Newman is the Canada Research Chair in food security and the environment at the University of the Fraser Valley.

      Comments

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      5 Comments

      MarkFornataro

      Mar 28, 2014 at 11:52am

      If anyone needs one big reason to not support the Liberals their erosion of the ALR is one such example. How foolish it is with the increased costs-financially and pollution-wise- of having to truck in food from distant places when we have such great farmland here. Not to mention the local farming and related jobs that will be lost. We need another Dave Barrett style of government; one that had the smarts and conscience to implement the ALR.

      Gardner

      Mar 28, 2014 at 2:10pm

      The Fraser Valley will flood. Again. And again. And due to global warming, probably more often than not, in great deluges. Look at what happened in High River, Alberta. Whole cities will be swamped, houses will be washed away, billions of dollars will be demanded of insurance companies who will likely not pay up, people will be permanently relocated to refugee camps in Merritt. In that perspective, Richmond is sorely lacking in the feng shui so touted to immigrants. The replenishing nature of floods and the flat topography of a vast river delta is what makes the Fraser Valley valuable farmland in an otherwise mountainous province. Whoever thought it was a good idea to build cities and suburbs in the Valley must have been a BC Fiberal out to make a quick buck. There was no foresight involved. Maybe next they'll open up protected parkland to industrial uses, wouldn't that be something else...oh wait, they just did. Here's one radical idea: let's make it illegal to own property for any non-agricultural purpose on any floodplain in BC. Watch as the cities of Richmond, Surrey, Delta, Ladner, Abbotsford, Chilliwack empty overnight. Our governments (note that I say "our" - are we citizens or will we continue to act like slaves?) can make such radical laws, usually only in times of crisis. Or we can let nature eventually do it instead and wail at the injustice of it all.

      Real

      Mar 28, 2014 at 4:57pm

      It's probably (gutting the ALR in Rural areas outside of major Cities) to make way fro FRACKING.

      It makes it easier for the Oil & Gas Corporations to get at protected Agricultural Land to dig in Wells and Frack the crap out of it.

      Edge

      Mar 29, 2014 at 8:51am

      Greed and ignorance rule our provence and our country.

      Shame on those who voted for these anti-Canadians.

      Xtina

      May 31, 2014 at 11:08am

      @Edge regarding your comment ",,,those who voted for these..."B.C. Liberals. Remember the global democratic record of big oil'n'gas--they get whatever they want. A cursory
      research of their record for dealing with governments that want to nationalize their resources, or pro alternative energy politicians, or politicians that insist on higher royalties from their resource development will tell you all you need to know about our last provincial election. With energy corporations what matters is who counts the votes not your vote counts.